Why hasn't the Obama administration lived up to its webby promises?

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Jan. 21 2010 3:02 PM

Fail to the Chief

Why hasn't the Obama administration lived up to its webby promises?

(Continued from Page 1)

For much of the year, OFA focused directly on Obama's health care goal. As Ari Melber documents in an authoritative report on the group's first year, OFA collected thousands of stories about people's health care woes, organized meetings around the country in support of reform, and spurred a huge letter-writing campaign to push members of Congress to support Obama's efforts. But these plans didn't really work. The media paid much more attention to the noisier anti-health-care activists, and congressional staffers told Melber that the campaign by OFA wasn't a major force in lawmakers' decisions on health care.

Why did OFA fail? Because it didn't really change the way politics worked. Melber notes that the group didn't offer members any formal way to take part in decision-making or to affect what the Democratic Party did. "The tea-party movement created an opportunity for local people to really own the issue," Rosenblatt says. "Organizing for America may have turned out at least as many people to the town hall meetings, but they didn't have the passion—they were there because OFA had told them, 'We need you to do this,' not because they felt like they were an active community."

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Governing is boring. To be sure, the Obama White House has done some new things with the Web. The White House Web site features a blog, Obama's weekly addresses are now hosted on YouTube, and you can see lots of pictures of the first family on the White House's Flickr page. The administration has also launched several federal sites that each offer vague, overlapping promises of transparency—Data.gov, Serve.gov, Recovery.gov, FinancialStability.gov—and has outlined a plan for government agencies to release "high value data sets" that could lead to lots of wonderfully webby government applications. Fans of federal transparency have hailed Obama's efforts, though that's exactly the problem: There aren't that many fans of federal transparency.

This highlights the larger difficulty Obama faces in trying to replicate his campaign's field organization. During the campaign, millions of people were motivated to work for Obama because the prospect of his election was thrilling, historic, and easy to understand. The idea of passing any specific piece of legislation—even something as grand as universal health care—is by comparison far less spectacular, especially as the proposals get dragged through the congressional sausage mill.

Actually, Obama's campaign was never really so webby to begin with. In December, Micah Sifry, co-founder of the annual tech/politics conference the Personal Democracy Forum, published an article in which he argued that much of the hype surrounding the Obama campaign's Web savvy was just that—hype. Sifry says that contrary to conventional wisdom, much of the candidate's money came from big donors, and his organization didn't offer volunteers new opportunities to plan what the campaign did. The Web was just one of several convenient explanations for Obama's string of unexpected political successes—a myth that raised unrealistic expectations for how the candidate would govern once he took office.

While these expectations may have helped Obama win office, they may also be his undoing, Sifry argues. As Obama settled in and began acting more and more like a regular politician, his fans became jaded. His YouTube viewership is declining, and e-mail blasts from the president and his staff no longer elicit much action.

Trippi believes that the White House can change this. There's still enough goodwill between Obama and his supporters, Trippi argues, that if the president were to try to reinvigorate efforts to create a real social network of activists, people might respond. And if they don't? There's always Campaign 2012.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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